Review: ‘Reaganland’ by Rick Perlstein

Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980 by Rick Perlstein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are more than 200 pages of endnotes in Rick Perlstein’s “Reaganland,” and I have no doubt that the author – who concludes his four-volume history of postwar American conservatism and culture with this book – read every single book, article, squib, and cocktail napkin he mentions.

The work – all 700-plus pages of it (not including the endnotes, or the bibliography, or the index, or the acknowledgments) — is a marvel of detail and synthesis. I lived through the period Perlstein chronicles, having been 11 when Jimmy Carter was elected president and 15 when he was voted out in favor of Ronald Reagan, and I paid pretty close attention to the news (especially for an adolescent). I’ve also read much about the era since. But there are any number of incidents I’d forgotten about, or failed to realize the significance of, until I saw them woven into Perlstein’s ‘70s tapestry: the background of Love Canal, the early flailing of the 1980 Reagan campaign (John Connolly was considered a much more attractive candidate at one time), how far down Carter’s approval ratings were – and how much they rose after the Camp David Accords and the early days of the Iran hostage crisis.

But those events are only the surface. The real story of “Reaganland” is the creation of the conservative messaging subculture and its joining with the religious right, led by such figures as Heritage Foundation co-founder Paul Weyrich, direct-mail king Richard Viguerie, Liberty University founder Jerry Falwell, and anti-ERA activist Phyllis Schlafly. Together, they helped build an ideology that’s still with us today, one that’s become more homogenous, well-funded, and powerful than they could have ever imagined.

The echoes – or perhaps klaxons – are with us still.

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Sunday read: Passing the presidential baton

Barack and Michelle Obama and George and Laura Bush, January 20, 2009.

Joe Biden is now President-elect Joe Biden.

Between now and January 20, he has to get a new administration more or less in place, hiring hundreds of officials and generally turning the presidency into one of the nation’s biggest start-up companies.

In this, he will likely get no help from the outgoing president or his people. That’s not necessarily new in American history, though it is in recent years, when the handover between administrations has been relatively smooth.

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Image from the Indianapolis Star.

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

15th Amendment, U.S. Constitution


The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

19th Amendment, U.S. Constitution


The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.

26th Amendment, U.S. Constitution


But it’s good television!

I didn’t watch the debate last night. I knew I wouldn’t be able to stomach even 15 uninterrupted minutes of the person a friend calls The Only President We Have.

(“Uninterrupted.” Ironic word choice there, Leopold.)

Based on the ratings — the only yardstick The Only President approves of — it appears I wasn’t alone. The audience was big — about 65 million across eight channels — but that’s still substantially fewer people than the 76 million who watched the first debate between him and Hillary Clinton four years ago.

Still, the numbers may go up when other channels and the Internet are added in, and they’re still the highest for a television program in 2020 than anything outside the Super Bowl. And there’s a reason, beyond the fact that the future of what’s left of the free world depends on the outcome of this election, that debates featuring Mr. “Sir” President do so well: He’s outrageous. He’s his Twitter feed come to life.

He’s good television.

Maybe I should put that phrase in quotes, because “good television” seldom means good television. It means car-wreck television. It means that the so-called cool medium has become hot, and you can’t look away.

At its best — a rare occurrence — good television is immediate and meaningful, a live (or live-on-tape) event that crackles with the energy of live theater.

But usually, “good television” is the equivalent of bad pulp fiction, momentarily enjoyable but soul-suckingly, time-wastingly meaningless. Think your if-it-bleeds-it-leads local newscast. Think pro wrestling. Think reality shows.

Think of a person that term defines. He’s Lonesome Rhodes. He’s Diana Christensen. He’s television incarnate.

There’s nothing left in you that I can live with. You’re one of Howard’s humanoids. If I stay with you, I’ll be destroyed. Like Howard Beale was destroyed. Like Laureen Hobbs was destroyed. Like everything you and the institution of television touch is destroyed. You’re television incarnate, Diana: Indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer. And the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split seconds and instant replays. You’re madness, Diana. Virulent madness. And everything you touch dies with you. 

(Is it any coincidence that former GOP strategist Rick Wilson likes to say, “Everything Trump touches dies“?)

I hope the networks — particularly the cable news folks — are happy about the guy who’s given them spectacular profits. Sure, the profits may be Pyrrhic in the long run, what with the state of the country, the world and all.

But, hey, it’s “good television.” In the meantime, we’ll just keep amusing ourselves to death.

The devil you know

Image from the AP via the American Prospect.

A couple days ago, Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall — the man who keeps me sane — published a post, “Why Are Dems Nervous? Because They’re Dems” (paywall).

His reasons were many and familiar: Democrats are a much more diverse party, and it’s hard to hold its constituencies together. Democrats believe they don’t fight as hard as Republicans. Democrats are innately more skeptical — that is, more empirically minded and aware of weakness — than the GOP, so they worry more.

I’d add one more reason: People hate change, and Democrats are generally the party of change.

Hell, even when they’re the party of staying the same, they’re the party of change. Look at 2000, when Al Gore — almost unopposed in the primaries — was following Bill Clinton, who had presided over the best GDP growth since the Go-Go days of the 1960s. Gore’s proposals were actually fiscally conservative — remember the “lockbox”? — but claims of Democratic profligacy made headway, George W. Bush promised a tax cut, and too many people thought there was no difference between the pair.

As for 2016, there was this candidate who promised to “Make America Great Again,” so even though that sounds like change from the status quo — personified then by a Black president, a woman presidential candidate, and a woman speaker of the House — it was really sounding a retreat to a glorious, golden, manly era when everyone knew their place and Washington wasn’t a swamp. I’m thinking 1 million years B.C.

Anyway, the thing is, people will stay in bad situations because the alternative is unknown and scarier than the familiar. Hell, I consider myself a Democrat and I hate change. When my life feels stuck, I come up with Plans B, C, and Z, and tell myself that making the jump I’ll be in a better place than where I’m at. Yet even a single step in that direction feels like dragging my leg with a 50-pound anchor attached.

Right now, things are bad. People are still dying of Covid-19 — not at the rate they were a couple weeks ago, thankfully, but still at a higher rate than in most other Western countries. People are angry at police shootings and extremists with their weapons and again I want to post that “Network” speech from Howard Beale that leads up to “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore,” so I will.

And yet the Democrats are nervous because who knows if the polls are right and what about the swing states and he’s trying to take down the Postal Service and people are scared and, well, the president and his party are promising more of the same (and quite forcefully, too). And though more of the same sounds to me like staying in an abusive relationship, it can be hard to leave an abusive relationship.

After all, he did say “I love you.”

Sunday read: The soul of the party

Image from Reuters via Politico.

A few days ago, I ordered Kurt Andersen’s latest book, “Evil Geniuses,” about the wealthy groups that steered the Republican Party away from its Main Street, mildly libertarian outlook and into its anti-government, anti-science, anti-immigrant, ferociously pro-gun/fundamentalist religious absolutism. I may have to hold off reading it for awhile, because I’m not in the mood for horror stories right now.

Still, I’m reminded of the politician who helped make it all possible. No, not Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan, though they played major roles. (Charles P. Pierce is fond of talking about the “prion disease” that’s been eating away at the GOP since Reagan started feeding the faithful “monkey brains.”)

I’m thinking of Newton Leroy Gingrich. How the former Georgia representative, short-lived House Speaker and current husband to the Ambassador to the Vatican (God loves His little jokes) managed to rip the fabric of America into tiny little angry pieces is the subject of my Sunday read, McKay Coppins’ Atlantic article, “The Man Who Broke Politics.”

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John Lewis’ last words, Barack Obama’s eulogy

Yesterday, while dignitaries gathered in Atlanta for John Lewis’ homegoing, The New York Times ran a column by the famed civil rights leader and representative: “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation.” You should read the whole thing, but I was particularly moved by these words:

Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.

That had a deliberate echo in Barack Obama’s eulogy later that day:

He knew that every single one of us has a God-given power. And that the fate of this democracy depends on how we use it; that democracy isn’t automatic, it has to be nurtured, it has to be tended to, we have to work at it, it’s hard. And so he knew it depends on whether we summon a measure, just a measure, of John’s moral courage to question what’s right and what’s wrong and call things as they are. He said that as long as he had breath in his body, he would do everything he could to preserve this democracy. That as long as we have breath in our bodies, we have to continue his cause. If we want our children to grow up in a democracy — not just with elections, but a true democracy, a representative democracy, a big-hearted, tolerant, vibrant, inclusive America of perpetual self-creation — then we are going to have to be more like John. We don’t have to do all the things he had to do because he did them for us. But we have got to do something. As the Lord instructed Paul, “Do not be afraid, go on speaking; do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” Just everybody’s just got to come out and vote. 

(You should also read the whole thing.)

John Lewis devoted his career to ensuring that the ideals of this country — and the rights, including the right to vote, enshrined in the Constitution — would be accessible to every American. I’ve always been reluctant to use the phrase “American exceptionalism” — especially given the current situation — but, at its best, this country is capable of transcendence.

One more quote, attributed to Benjamin Franklin: When asked if we had a democracy or a republic, he reportedly replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” We have to do our utmost to honor Franklin — and John Lewis. Vote.

Sunday read: What John Lewis stood for

Image from Getty via

There is a mug shot of John Lewis, taken after he was arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1961, in which he’s smiling.

“Even though I was under arrest, I smiled because I believed we were on the right side of history,” he wrote on Facebook five years ago. 

Cynthia Tucker, in an essay on Lewis published earlier this year in The Bitter Southerner, observes that Lewis often had an optimistic view of history and activism, even as things looked bleak. He believed in non-violence. He knew following through on that belief was difficult. He was sustained by the idea that America would rise to meet its ideals.

“I truly believe that, in keeping with the teachings of Gandhi, of Martin Luther King, of Jesus, that we cannot give up on the way of non-violence, the way of peace, the way of love,” Lewis told Tucker. “If we are going to create the beloved community, if we are going to redeem the country, redeem the world, we have to do it by respecting the rights of all human beings.”

It’s a message I’ve been thinking about in the wake of Lewis’ death.

In the essay, “The Way of John Lewis,” Tucker compares the challenges of non-violence in the face of a rage-provoking, unjust world. Though many aspects of civil rights have improved since Lewis started marching, we’re still faced with brutality, voter suppression, inequality, racism.

It is hard work. It has always been hard work.

“The Way of John Lewis” is my Sunday read. You can find it here.

John Lewis, 1940-2020

Image via Politico.

I don’t have much to add to the many obituaries and tributes about Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights leader and public servant who died Friday at the age of 80. (I like the headline on the BBC’s: “civil rights champion.” Yes.) His achievements are many; his legacy is secure.

This was a man who braved hostile authorities and racist mobs to participate in the Freedom Rides in 1961. His group’s bus was firebombed in Anniston, Alabama; he was viciously attacked in Montgomery. He spent time in Mississippi’s brutal Parchman Farm Penitentiary for daring to use a restroom.

And still he continued.

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